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Mansfield Student Balloon Mapping Program

Do-it-yourself balloon mapping is a great way to create original remotely sensed data at a very low cost, all while getting students involved in creating and processing geographic data for various uses. At UWFox, I developed a student balloon mapping program where under my supervision, students launched a tethered weather balloon with an attached camera to create geographic imagery of various points of interest. I've brought the experience with me with my new position at Mansfield, because it's an activity that really allows students to get a hands-on educational experience with remote sensing and GIS.


Launches and Results

Launch M-03 - April 11, 2014
The MU GEG 2800 (GIS/GPS) course launched a balloon during the class to map campus.

Launch M-02 - November 13, 2013
The MU GEG 2800 (GIS/GPS) course launched a balloon during the class to map campus.

Launch M-01 - September 14, 2013
As the Mansfield University football team played its first night game in over a century, the student volunteers launched an imaging balloon over the stadium to capture that evening. (Read Full Launch Report...)

Launch M-01-T - September 13, 2013
The students of GEG 2800 (GIS/GPS) and various other geography majors from MU gathered at the football stadium to help me run a test launch, specifically to familiarize ourselves with the launch area and to test the camera for night photography. (Read Full Launch Report...)

I also led one mission at UWFox in 2012:

Launch F-01 - December 5, 2012
Our initial launch! The mission's objectives were to create high resolution and up-to-date remotely sensed imagery of the UWFox campus and to experiment with best practices for balloon mapping. Imagery was generated to support GEO 106's final project, in which the class mapped the campus's trees. (Read Full Launch Report...)

Another mission scheduled for February 2013 at UWFox was ultimately scrubbed due to poor weather.



In the spirit of DIY mapping, which is fully crowd-sourced and typically open source / creative commons, I've begun gathering and creating resources for those who'd like to get started with balloon mapping.

We purchased the Balloon Mapping Kit from BreadPig, which includes the balloon, a 1000' tether/winder and various hardware for setting up the rig. At $95 plus shipping, it's a pretty good deal and is completely reusable if you're careful. We also purchased a Canon Powershot a4000 IS for this purpose. We bought Canon because it's a trusted brand, this model is inexpensive ($79 on sale), because it has continuous shooting and because many Canon cameras can be hacked using CHDK (though, as we found, not this model quite yet!).


There are several software solutions that help out. If you're using a Canon camera, try using CHDK to hack the firmware. It only supports certain models of Canons, but can't hurt your camera and might make it far more useful. When preparing your photos for mapping, you'll probably want to process them in a photo editor like Photoshop. I recommend automating the actions (see this helpful PS guide) to make the process less repetitive for you. PublicLabs offers MapKnitter, a web app that's relatively intuitive and does a great job stitching together and geo-referencing imagery. Mapknitter also outputs to a "dumb" JPG or a GeoTIF, so that the imagery can be used in packages like QGIS.


Coming Soon...
Instructions addendum and classroom assignment.



Special thanks to Dr. Beth Johnson, UWFox geologist, for providing another pair of hands and eyes on that very first launch day!

I wish I could say that the inspiration for this project was all mine, but this program was inspired by the work of various fellow geographers, including Andrew Foy at Radford and Alan McConchrie (UBC) and Britta Ricker (SFU). Thanks guys!

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